I’m compiling a document called “Ignoratio Elenchi” (“missing the point”) with fragments of interesting things that framed failed poems. My hope is that this daisy-chain of failed, poetic dramatic situations will come together as something new, maybe a lyric essay on and demonstrating failure. This project must be something like a grappa, that liquor made from the unwanted skins, seeds, and stems of grapes that would foul wine. Let me go ahead and propose this form: a Grappa, a lyric-prose hybrid that trellises together failed lines, ideas, and dramatic situations. Most of the time my failed poems fail because I have too much of a set idea or firm situation—a boa muscled by truths, intentions. In a new form perhaps, by their prismatic triangulation, they will be elevated beyond their specificity, re-rendered to bewilder.
On Wednesday, November 16, I gave the lecture “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters” at Rutherford Hall in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Here are the materials for that talk:
This talk also transformed into my November 2016 blog post for Ploughshares, “Truth & Dread: Why Poetry Still Matters & The Risk of (Too Much) Empathy”:
Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
Purpose: To push the boundaries of the line, sentence, and punctuation to add subtext and texture to poems
Readings: Lynda Hull, Claudia Emerson, Ocean Vuong, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May, Ross Gay
*This prompt was given to Mary Szybist’s workshop at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop
In this prompt, I’d like for you to explore the ways in which you can complicate your poems with subtext and refine them with dramatic, imagistic, and rhythmic textures through the relationship between the line/form and the sentence.
- Write a heavily enjambed poem about deceit, doublespeak, a fallible memory, or letting someone down easy. Each line of this poem must make its own kind of sense separate from the sentence(s) to which it belongs. Each line may support, nuance, or buck against its parent syntactical meaning(s). Take a look at Lynda Hull’s “Rivers Into Seas.” In order to examine this phenomenon, it might be helpful to read the poem for its sentences initially, and then reread it line-by-line with an exaggerated pause at each break. What lines assert themselves as a complete thought, sentence, or image? How does that relate to the syntax?
- Write a poem that takes the first prompt further by including little or no punctuation. Choose whether or not you’d like to introduce alternatives to traditional punctuation, through in-line white space (also called visual caesuras) as found in Claudia Emerson’s “Midwife”; line breaks, like those in Ocean Vuong’s “Ode to Masturbation”; capitalization at the start of sentences; or some combination. (Keep in mind that in-line white space also can be used as a means to emphasize certain images or phrases; to modulate the reader’s pace; or to imitate an action taking place in the poem.)
- Write a poem in two columns. The columns must make (a certain) sense if read together and apart. See “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah and “I Do Have a Seam” by Jamaal May.
- Write a poem in one sentence or run-on sentence that uses the line as a break for breath that befits the action of the poem or the way in which the speaker might tell the story. See Ross Gay’s “For Some Slight I Can’t Quite Recall.”
Purpose: To consider how form changes meaning, emphasis, and tone; to practice imitation
Readings: “Envy of Other People’s Poems” by Robert Hass along with excerpts of poems by Larry Levis, Terrance Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Lynda Hull, George Oppen, and Linda Gregerson
Let’s look at “Envy of Other People’s Poems” by American poet Robert Hass. I’ve removed the lineation so that the poem appears as prose:
“Envy of Other People’s Poems”
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing. It was only a sailor’s story that they could. So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed by a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea, wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—and the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch, seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever on their rocky waste of island by their imagination of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
With this poem as our foundation, let’s consider the symbiotic relationship between a poem’s subject matter and language. For the purposes of this class, “form” will be used less to talk about received forms like sonnets or ghazals but more about the format of the poem on the page, including its line length, breaks (enjambments and end-stops), drop lines, stanzas, etc.
Escape in Brilliant Highways: A Form Imitation Exercise
- Read the following excerpts from poems by other poets and reformat the Hass poem using the formal principles apparent in each of the excerpts. Keep in mind you shouldn’t rewrite any language of the poem; only manipulate line and stanza breaks, indentions, and spacing. As you read each excerpt, make notes about unifying formal strategies that you must include in the formal imitation.
Excerpt from “Anastasia & Sandman”
The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.
When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,
Went on reflecting clouds & stars.
The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field.
Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.
Excerpt from “At Pegasus”
They are like those crazy women
who tore Orpheus
when he refused to sing,
these men grinding
in the strobe & black lights
of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.
“I’m just here for the music,”
I tell the man who asks me
to the floor.
Excerpt from “Cloud Watching”
Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington’s bedspread—
they weren’t hers to give. So, when the cavalry came,
we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled
with bullet holes.
Excerpt from “Tide of Voices”
At the hour the streetlights come on, buildings
turn abstract. The Hudson, for a moment, formal.
We drink bourbon on the terrace and you speak
in the evening voice, weighted deep in the throat.
They plan to harvest oysters, you tell me,
from the harbor by Jersey City, how the waters
will be clean again in twenty years. I imagine nets
burdened with rough shells, the meat dun and sexual.
Excerpt from “Myth of the Blaze”
night – sky bird’s world
to know to know in my life to know
what I have said to myself
the dark to escape in brilliant highways
of the night sky, finally
why had they not
killed me why did they fire that warning
wounding cannon only the one round I hold a
because of this lost to be lost Wyatt’s
lyric and Rezi’s
running thru my mind
in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre
of the War I’d cried
Excerpt from “Sostenuto”
Night. Or what
they have of it at altitude
like this, and filtered
air, what was
in my lungs just an hour ago is now
there’s only so much air to go
- After creating your formal imitations of “Envy of Other People’s Poems,” reflect on each of these imitations and jot down your thoughts to these questions: How has the new form changed the poem? Has the meaning or tone changed? How so?
- Now, let’s look at the Hass poem formatted as the author intended it.
Envy of Other People’s Poems
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
- Discuss. What are your reactions to the poem? Why did Hass format the poem the way that he did? What might subject matter have to do with the format? How did reformatting the poem reveal the author’s intentions about his form? How does the meaning of the poem change based on its form?
- Watch Patricia Smith perform “Skinhead”: https://youtu.be/Klb5TniRGao. Discuss.
- Jot down some notes about a situation in which you found yourself in direct opposition with someone else. Perhaps it’s as extreme as the violent racism in Smith’s poem or as routine as having the same seat number assignment as another person on a flight. The best situation is one in which the conflict was never or not easily resolved. (2–5 min.)
- Describe the diction that person uses and provide some examples. (1–2 min.)
- Now freewrite in the voice of that person as if he or she is addressing you. What would they say? How would they defend themselves against complaints about their actions toward you. (5–7 min.)
- Share your efforts. Did the exercise of writing in their voices change your opinions of your adversaries? What does this reveal about poetry’s ability to engage in empathy? Do your opinions carry into your rendering of their voice?
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To become more scrupulous readers of poetry
In order to prepare my Intro to Creative Writing students for talking more about poetry with regard to the author’s intentionality before their poetry workshop, I’m asking them to read and examine the poem “Ornithology” by Lynda Hull. They then have to answer questions about specifics in the poem. I’ve provided these questions via track changes in Microsoft Word:
Once they respond to these questions on their own, we will then discuss the possibilities. My hope is that they will see the value in discussing the possibilities rather than strive to make proclamations about what the poem is or what it’s doing.
After they complete the analysis, I’m going to ask them to try to write an imitation of at least ten lines (the formal unit that’s repeated throughout the poem) with special attention to sound and rhythm.